Wednesday, May 21, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 06 - Bleak Falls Barrow

While I knew where Bleak Falls Barrow was, my new companion and I headed into Riverwood first - perhaps some of the locals could tell us more about what to expect inside. Besides, I was drenched from the constant rain, and so we made a stop at the Sleeping Giant Inn.

Inside, a Redguard named Gorr who openly bragged about "killing more men than there are minutes in the day" offered his services as a thug-for-hire. Apparently he had started out as a gladiator in the Imperial City, but left for Skyrim for the horker stew (although he'd like to upgrade to dragon stew, if he finds some). He also seemed to live for the thrill of combat, and unlike Jenassa he didn't even ask for an advance payment. And right now, that's all the qualification he needs, apart from standing between me and harm's way.

The barkeeper couldn't tell me more about the barrows than what I already knew from Hadvar, though he had some other interesting rumors - that necromancers were moving from Falkreath to Whiterun via Brittleshin Pass, and that a boy in Windhelm was attempting to contact the Dark Brotherhood. The barmaid also told me that Ulfric had allegedly escaped from Helgen - I suspect I will see him again, sooner or later. The local bard was completely useless as a source of information - he was only interested in a romantic rivalry about some local girl.

I checked the Riverwood Trader next, and as it turned out he had just suffered from a break-in - the thieves took a golden ornament in the form of a dragon's claw - and only that ornament, despite all the other valuables in the house.

Dragon's claw? And apparently the thieves had taken off to Bleak Falls Barrow, too. Perhaps I was not the only one searching for this Dragonstone - if Faengar's "reliable source" had sold their knowledge to more than one interested party...

As we began to climb up the mountain, the cold rain transformed into snow, compounding my misery. We saw a bandit lookout at an old, decrepit watchtower, but managed to sneak past, despite Gorr's mutterings about what and whom we should kill today. When we reached the cyclopean arches of the actual barrow, our luck ran out - I came up a set of stairs just as one of the bandits was looking in my direction. Fortunately, my new companions were well worth the money I paid (or didn't pay, in the case of Gorr) for them - without them, it might have gone badly, since two of the bandits had somehow acquired crossbows. One bolt hit me, but nothing some still-remembered healing magics couldn't mend.

I snatched one of the crossbow, but I was now shivering violently from the cold. I needed a fire - fast. And just inside the barrows, several bandits were clustering around one, discussing one dark elf who had apparently "gone ahead" deeper into the barrows with the claw, apparently in the hopes of finding some treasure. Then they, too, spotted us, and after a short, ugly fight I warmed myself up. I also found a woodcutter's axe, which I kept - if I keep on getting caught in the cold like that, I want to be able to build a fire instead of searching for bandit camps and killing the current occupants.

Another bandit was guarding a room with strange tablets and rotating pillars with rotating animal signs. A puzzle room - though I've heard of trickier ones. Rotating the pillars so that they would match the tablets did the trick, and pulling a lever opened the gate to the next corridor without triggering any obvious traps.

A short time later, I heard the thief calling out for help - as it turned out, he had been trapped by a giant spider (horse-sized this time, though it was fortunately already wounded). As expected, he did have the claw, and promised to share the "treasure" with me - but he ran as soon as I had cut him loose.

Bad mistake. Beginner's mistake, one that you usually don't survive - running deeper into an unexplored dungeon, without paying attention to your surroundings? I followed much more cautiously, and indeed he awoke lurching, undead things from their slumber. No mere zombies these, armed and with eyes whose glowing blue burned an afterimage into my retina - those must be the infamous draugr of Skyrim. But one of them went down to our maces, while the other two were dispatched by a swinging, spiked gate triggered by a pressure plate. Not the brightest of creatures, which is a trait you should always value in your foes.

The thief had a journal with him, where he explained some old legends which hinted that the golden claw is some sort of key in the "Hall of Stories". The legends also stated "When you have the golden claw, the solution is in the palm of your hands". Looking at the claw's palm, I saw the same animal markings as in the puzzle room...

A more immediate problem presented itself, though - a corridor with swinging pendulums ending in large blades, still sharp despite all the millenia. How did all those ancient architects manage to build their traps so that they would last this long, anyway? I timed my passage carefully, though Jenassa received a small cut as she raced after me before I could find the lever to deactivate the swinging blades.

The barrows are well-lit by torches and braziers - but who keeps them fueled? Are they magical, are they ever-burning ghost-lights, or do the draugr sense our approach and light them just before we arrive? ...there's a nightmare to go with Hadvar's childhood terrors.

Then we reach a section of natural caves, which strangely enough are no less well lit, thanks to glowing mushrooms growing everywhere. A priest of my acquaintance claimed that the abundance of glowing fungi in the caverns of the Empire was proof of the Divines' benevolence by allowing the faithful to see even far away from the daylight, while the caves of Morrowind are often utterly dark because of the heresies of the Dunmer (later that night, he was mugged by a trio of dark elves who had overheard his claims).

Apparently at some point in the not-too-distant past a miner had gotten in and attempted to extract iron ore from a vein, but as his skeleton attested he never got out. I picked up his pickaxe - you never know when you might have to dig yourself out.

Finally, we reach the Hall of Stories. The door to the passages beyond turns out to have three movable circles with animal symbols, as well as holes which seem to have been made for the golden claw. I rotate the symbols until they match those on the claw and put the claw in, and the door slides into the ground. Not much of a puzzle, if you have the key - so why not just stick to the key itself?

We reach a large chamber with a monument at the center. A stylized dragon head is shown on the top of the central portion, while below it are runic markings. As I approach, the air begins to throb and shimmer blue, while I hear ancient Nordic chanting. I suspect fumes of some sort - a neat trick if you need your cult followers to really get into your holy day festivities and the booze and sacrificial virgins aren't enough.

Still, I have to admit that the runes fascinate me, and I almost don't realize another undead abomination rising from a sarcophagus behind me. Fortunately, my minions are quicker on the uptake, and Janassa dispatches it with a few short strokes of her blade. It turns out to have the dragonstone with it, too - it displays a rough map of Skyrim and a number of markings, presumably where the dragon burial sites are located.

It also had a greatsword that felt exceptionally cold to the touch, and had the shimmer typical of enchantments. I handed it to Gorr, who seemed to prefer two-handed weapons, as a down payment for his services. There was also an old dwarf-made mace in a chest, which had a much nicer heft than the shoddy one I had plundered from Helgen.

As for the runic markings, I've tried to copy them to the best of my ability - perhaps some scholar, either here or in Cyrodiil, can translate them for me.

A small tunnel close to the runic wall led us out of the mountain where we breathed the fresh air of the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully, the rain had stopped. While getting a bed in Riverwood was tempting, Whiterun wasn't that much further, and I wanted to know more about Farengar's research.

Continued in Dispatch 07 - Dragon Rising.